Working across text and performance, with some complex diagrammatic illustrations thrown in to try and make sense of life, death, and sex (things that so rarely make sense), the work of Kathy Acker is revered for its radical take on form, and for its unflinching depictions of what it means to be a woman.
An expansive show at London’s ICA celebrates the work of Acker through wall texts, videos, sound pieces, and pieces by other artists who worked with or were inspired by her. Entitled I, I, I, I, I, I, I, Kathy Acker, the show opens with a wall-spanning chronology of Acker’s texts, showing the designs of her book covers and pieces included in zines and smaller publications, ranging from the late ’60s to her death in 1997 and her posthumously published work. “Acker’s writings emphasize a form of montage, with her books often reading as composites of disparate texts,” says Steven Cairns, ICA’s curator of Artists’ Film and Moving Image. “She saw this textual fragmentation as linked to the deconstruction of identity and meaning, a position that evolved in her later books into a more topological and layered movement of identities and narratives.”
While she often created illustrations and map-like visuals for her works, these only appeared within the pages—her own work was never used on the cover designs. “One thing that unites many of her book covers is the image of the body, or bodies, often nude or semi-nude,” says Cairns, who was one of four curators of the exhibition. The cover images, like her texts, often alluded to other works—both her own and those of other writers—so that “some might look slightly like a religious publication, and others are quite ambiguous,” says Cairns. He adds, “She was always very open to working with other people [on designs], so if they had a great idea, she’d just go with it.”
Here, we talk through a few of Acker’s book covers featured in the show with Cairns.
The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by The Black Tarantula, Kathy Acker, 1973, TVRT Press and Printed Matter, New York, 1978 [top image]
Designed by Leandro Katz and published by Printed Matter, Acker’s debut novel exemplifies her radical writing style, which sees her lift texts from other authors wholesale, where other writers default to metaphor or allusion. With this book, she lifts from texts including the autobiography of William Butler Yeats and Justine: Philosophy in the Bedroom by the Marquis de Sade and puts them alongside her own passages to describe the stories of historical murderesses as well as her own autobiographical tales. The latter are ostensibly told through the eyes of a 16-year-old female narrator, as well as the leading lady in a pornographic book and a prostitute. “I was splitting the I into false and true I’s and I just wanted to see if this false I was more or less real than the true I, what are the reality levels between false and true and how it works,” Acker said in a 1989 interview, as republished in the ICA show texts.
There’s a ton of sex and death, and Acker flagrantly disregards the ideas of tastefulness and propriety in discussions of female sexuality, such as in passages speaking about sex as “…the nerves roll in cycles in preconceived courses through my body faster and faster in hunger and hunger rolls until my flesh disintegrates and turns in on itself. Like a devouring spider.” The book was initially self-published serially by Acker, who distributed it using a mailing list borrowed from the artist Eleanor Antin.
The photograph used on the bold green cover with a simple black serif typeface depicts a gun spilling milk—which we’ll leave up to you to interpret. “When you see the physical book, its unusual size is interesting,” says Cairns. “It deliberately looks like a cheap crime novel, with a more disposable feel.”
Pussycat Fever, Kathy Acker, 1995, AK Press, Edinburgh
In this book from 1995, the cover’s garish pink seems to be hollering a “fuck you” to conventional good-girl ideas of femininity. Acker’s words run alongside artwork by Diane DiMassa, who created the long-running comic book series Hothead Paisan, as well as collages by Freddie Baer, another female artist who worked across magazine covers, T-shirts, posters, and album sleeves. Once again, this is a tale of sex and danger, taking in a non-linear contemplation of emotion, desire, and a sort of coming-of-age dream-logic.
My Mother Demonology, Kathy Acker, 1993, Pantheon Books, New York
The book revolves around a woman named Laura, and is said to be loosely based on the relationship between authors Colette Peignot and Georges Bataille, who were lovers. The book delineates the protagonist’s struggles to negotiate all-consuming love and the fact that she needs solitude in order to find true identity and independence. The cover was designed by Judy Christensen.
“This is my personal favorite of her books and I think, her most under-appreciated,” says Cairns. “There’s a simplicity to it, and it’s her most personal—there are a lot of allusions to her mother committing suicide, and there’s a diary-like feel to the cover.”
In Memoriam to Identity, Kathy Acker, 1990, Grove Weidenfeld, New York
The cover for In Memoriam to Identity uses an illustrative approach and hand-drawn type, all in lower case, and a photograph of Acker’s back discolored to render it a queasy green. It’s designed by Jo Bonney, who has often collaborated with Grove Press and Wheatland Corporation, and whose work is featured in the Cooper Hewitt Museum. Bonney also often collaborated with photographer Michel Delsol, who shot the image of Acker that adorns the cover.
Empire of the Senseless, Kathy Acker, 1988, Grove Press, New York
Once again, this cover design is playful in its suggestions of ideas around intertextuality. It has the feel of a flimsy holiday romance novel—all garish colors and brash visual signifiers. “The idea of the pirate is prevalent throughout her writing, as is the idea of piracy as an approach or stye,” says Cairns. “There’s a connection with post colonial reading too, and also her appropriation of other texts. The cover is an intentional allusion to Americana, and you immediately think of the Empire State Building with the title, for instance. The font is a bit wobbly, it’s quite 1950s Hollywood, and a real contrast to the content. The skull doesn’t seem to make sense on the cover, but when you read the book, you realize it acts as a warning.” The cover was designed by George Corsillo, who also worked on her book Kathy Goes to Haiti. He’s worked on record covers for the likes of Bob Dylan, Jefferson Starship, Dolly Parton, and the Velvet Underground.
Don Quixote, Kathy Acker, 1986, Grove Press, New York
“[Acker’s] appropriation of different styles and book formats is very relevant here,” says Cairns. “I always describe her as someone who would occupy different texts or spaces, and the books are ways to occupy them in a physical sense. There’s always an awareness of the book as a physical object.” Like her 1982 book Great Expectations, which reimagines the Charles Dickens book into a punk tale of an orphaned, gender-morphing Pip in 1980s New York, Acker’s Don Quixote reworks the classic text—and the cover is deliberately sly in its camouflage. “It’s very easy to confuse it with a version of the Cervantes book that might have been published at the time,” says Cairns. “She’s ‘inhabiting’ someone else’s publication, and the cover alludes to her playing with gender, showing a female knight on a horse.”
The cover was designed by Neil Stuart, former Viking Penguin art director, and the illustration is by Catherine Denvir.